Despite buyout funding being on list of state budget cuts, officials pledge to complete purchase of contaminated Kansas town
29 January 2010, 9:09 a.m. Updated: 29 January 2010, 9:25 a.m.
Treece Kansas and federal officials assured residents of this toxic town Thursday that government efforts to buy their property and move them out will proceed somehow, even if state lawmakers don't approve $350,000 for the state's part of the buyout.
The state money is the final potential obstacle to buying out the approximately 100 people who still live in Treece, a southeast Kansas town surrounded by millions of tons of lead- and zinc-contaminated mine waste known as chat.
The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to pay for 90 percent of the estimated $3.5 million it will cost to relocate the residents of Treece, but the state's 10 percent is on a list of potential cuts if lawmakers don't increase taxes to close a $400 million budget gap.
However, at a meeting Thursday at the former City Hall of Picher, Okla., Bob Jurgens, a section chief of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told residents their buyout is a "high priority."
He sought to quell residents' concerns that the buyout will stop because of a lack of state funding.
"If the $350,000 gets cut out of the state budget, we'll find ways to go forward," Jurgens said. "We'll do what we need to, to go find it (money) to keep things moving."
Treece has no building large enough to accommodate the approximately 80 people who attended the meeting, so it was held in Picher, a ghost town just across the state line from Treece. It already has been bought out by the EPA and almost completely emptied of residents.
Both towns are surrounded by huge piles of chat and dotted with abandoned mine shafts, sinkholes and cave-ins filled to surface level with toxic water.
After several failed attempts, Kansas members of Congress managed to push a bill through late last year authorizing the EPA to spend money for a Treece buyout.
In an interview with The Eagle on Wednesday, Gov. Mark Parkinson expressed hope that state lawmakers will follow suit and approve the money to fund the state's share.
"We definitely want to be able to provide the match," Parkinson said.
But he tied the Treece buyout money to his proposal to raise $400 million through a three-year, one-percent sales tax increase and higher tobacco taxes.
"It's part of our view that we need this $400 million in order to do it," he said. "I'm optimistic that the Legislature will do the right thing and see that the ramifications of these cuts are too large and we'll be able to fund our match to clean up Treece."
If it doesn't fund the match, the state would be breaking faith with the people of Treece, said City Council member Jan Leatherman.
She was part of a city delegation that went to Topeka in 2006 and posed for pictures with then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as she signed a bill for the state to pay as much as $650,000 toward buying out Treece.
As efforts to obtain federal funding stalled, "They took our money and spent it on their budget," Leatherman said. "They were so proud to have us come up there. I just think it's not good integrity (to deny the funding now). It's not our fault their budget got shot."
Most of the questions at Thursday's meeting dealt with the nuts and bolts of the buyout, such as how homes will be appraised, who will be eligible and when the buyouts might start.
Jurgens said that will be up to a board of trustees that will be appointed to oversee the buyout.
The governors' office is conducting background checks on prospective nominees and officials expect to submit the names for Senate confirmation before the end of the current legislative session.
Trustees will not come from KDHE or EPA and will be local people familiar with the conditions in and around Treece, Jurgens said.
He said Treece homes will be appraised based on the value of comparable homes in Cherokee County, but outside the area affected by mine pollution.
Also, he said residents who take the buyout will have to agree not to move to other pollution zones nearby.
A few people asked questions about what will happen to them if they decide to stay in Treece, but most signaled agreement with Bert H. Mains, 67. Mains is on oxygen for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and said the sooner he gets out of Treece, the better.
"Hurry up," he told the EPA and KDHE officials. "I want to live to see the move."